Anarchism in Short

This is a piece which I was in the middle of writing in October 2010 when illness intervened; it is therefore unfinished. But I didn’t want to let the part I had written go to waste!

A Very Short Introduction to Anarchism by Colin Ward differs from other books in the series in that the author is an Anarchist himself and the book is unashamedly partisan. This is not to say that writers of other books in the series do not care, or are not passionate about, their subjects but that is somewhat different from advocating a particular political position.

The results of this approach are both positive and negative : positive in that it is clear that Ward has not only a complete intellectual grasp of his subject but an emotional connection with it, negative in that the problems and flaws must be supplied by the reader.

I was particularly interested in this book because I have become aware that my political philosophy may have drifted in an anarchist direction over the past few years, and I wanted to see how far this was true, and to what extent I am actually in sympathy with anarchist ideas. Ward argues that although anarchist undercurrents can be found in many historical events, as far back as slave revolts in the classical world, the impetus for anarchism as an ideology arose out of the defeat of the French Revolution and an attempt to answer the question ‘what went wrong?’. It was Proudhon who first used the word to describe his political and social ideology and he along with Godwin, Bakunin and Kropotkin can be considered as the four major thinkers of the tradition (although many anarchists would be suspicious of this formulation). There are various kinds of anarchism (anarchist-communism, collectivist anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, individualist anarchism, pacificist anarchism, anarcha-feminism, green anarchism) but “what links them all is their rejection of external authority”.

“In all revolutions the fate of the anarchists was that of heroic losers”. But anarchists are not necessarily fixated on an ultimate Utopia. The German anarchist Gustav Landauer wrote…

The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.

Ward goes through various global examples of anarchism. He then cites the definition of anarchism which Kropotkin wrote for the 1905 Encyclopedia Britannica..

the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements, concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being.

Ward then goes through a history of the fate of anarchists in various revolutions – including the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Mexican Revolution, the Russian Revolution and above all Spain where the mass anarcho-syndicalist union the CNT (Confederation Nacional del Trabajo) played a major role.

He next turns his attention to various aspects of anarchist thought, starting with the most crucial, on the role of society and the state. For anarchists there is a vital distinction to be made between these things (Ward admits this is not a perception limited to anarchists naming Isaiah Berlin and G.D.H. Cole as two 20thC thinkers who also emphasised the difference). The philosopher Martin Buber characterised the difference between the two as the difference between the political and the social – the former is concerned with ‘power, authority, hierarchy, and  domination‘, while the latter is about ‘spontaneous human associations built around a common need‘. Why, he asked, did the former always predominate? He suggested that….

the fact that every people feels itself threatened by the others gives the state its definite unifying power; it depends upon the instinct of self-preservation itself; the latent external crisis enables it to get the upper hand in internal crises….All forms of Government have this in common: each possesses more power than is required by the given conditions; in fact, this excess in the capacity for making dispositions is actually what we understand by political power.

It is at this point that my reservations begin. I can certainly see how states use external threats to buttress their own power, but to suggest that either this is their only mechanism for doing so, or that they do not have other functions seems to me simplistic at best. What is missing here is any analysis of class. Thatcher – as often – made this very explicit when she talked of the miners as ‘the enemy within’ (‘We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty‘). States represent and embody particular class interests and they wield their forces on behalf of those interests. We can see this constantly and throughout history. Ward continues to describe how the NHS was a step backwards because it was created by the state, where in its pure 19thC form it was represented by a ‘vast network of friendly societies and mutual aid organisations’. This I regard as nonsense. The NHS has a mass of deficiencies, but to suggest that the working-class in the UK would be better off without it is absurd. One only has to look at the situation in the US to see how true with this. It is a ‘which side are you on?’ question : sometimes one has to resolve an issue by restating it as a stark question in order to force a reply. If one asks ‘are you in favour of the abolition of the NHS?’ only someone almost completely removed from life’s realities or a total reactionary would answer ‘yes’. It is perfectly true, as Ward goes on to explain, that the NHS has become managerial (‘the rise to dominance of professional managers’) but this alone does not justify questioning the ideal of free health care for all.

Ward argues that anarchist forms of organisation, which would be voluntary, functional, temporary and small, are in fact practical current alternatives to ‘the crudities and injustices of both free market capitalism and bureaucratic managerial socialism’. In fact at a later point he goes on to argue most anarchists now are to be found in the ‘informal or small-scale economy’…..

In this post-industrial world of work, the only serious study of the small businessman finds him to be not a Thatcherite hero, but a creative rebel against the compulsion to be either an employer or an employee.

Once again I think we are descending into the realm of absurdities, but even deeper ones this time. In general the option of becoming a self-employed small businessperson is not open to the mass of the population. But leaving the factual rebuttal on one side (many small businessmen are Thatcherites!) there seems to me to be a retreat to one’s garden here. Now I know that in some ways it is hypocritical for me to object to this : it is after all precisely what I have done with my life. And I would not want to suggest, let alone prescribe, the social life as either necessary or ideal. We place far too large a premium on values of sociability and engagement, which are mere norms, and have no more innate worth than any other normative value. But there is a difference between being forced by the circumstances of one’s own life, circumstances or mental health (the last in my case) into (definitely not rugged!) individualism, and advancing it as a political philosophy. Everything that appeals to me about anarchism is summed up by Bakunin’s great aphorism…

Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.

(since writing this I have obtained a t-shirt with this slogan on from the excellent – first time I have done a commercial plug on this blog, but I won’t be getting any commission sadly!).

I am not saying that there are not all sorts of problems associated with this formulation, but it is a very long way from some half-baked notion of transforming an advanced capitalist society by everyone becoming small businesspeople!

I have however jumped ahead. Ward goes on in his next chapter to cover the anarchist position on religion, nationalism and fundamentalism. As might be expected there is much excellent reasoning here, though little that is new to anyone conversant with Marxist positions on these issues (mind you some of the latter as regards fundamentalism have become very odd).  I like Bakunin’s formulation (again) : he argued that were three routes of escape from the ‘miseries of life’ – the first two were the bottle and the church ‘debauchery of the body or debauchery of the mind; the third is social revolution‘ (not one notes becoming a small business person! but in fact I think that there are many other escapes, but all are individual and do not contain the seeds of societal change). And once again there is a problem at the end of the chapter where Ward’s description of the actual processes to be used in combatting fundamentalism are vague.

Much better, as one might expect is the next chapter entitled ‘Containing deviancy and liberating work’. One would expect anarchist thought to be specially strong on issues of crime and punishment and this proves to be the case. Ward trots out the appalling statistics on the US prison population – no other nation in history has put such a high percentage of its citizens in jail. But on the legalisation of drugs he produces a wonderful quote from the anarchist Errico Malatesta in 1922…

It is the old mistake of legislators, in spite of experience invariably showing that laws, however barbarous they may be, have never served to suppress vice or to discourage delinquency. The more severe the penalties imposed on the consumers and traffickers of cocaine, the greater will be the attractions of forbidden fruits and the fascination of the risks incurred by the consumer, and the greater will be the profits made by speculators , avid for money.

It is useless, therefore, to hope for anything from the law. We must suggest another solution. Make the use and sale of cocaine free from restrictions, and open kiosks where it would be sold at cost price or even under cost…….

Certainly the harmful use of cocaine would not disappear completely, because the social causes which drive these poor devils to the use of the drugs would still exist. But in any case the evil would decrease, because nobody could make profits out of its sale, and nobody could speculate on the hunt for speculators. And for this reason our suggestion either will not be taken into account or it will be considered impractical and mad.

I very much doubt that anyone else was advancing such a policy in 1922. Of course I am not totally happy with the formulation as there is still that moral element, that assumption that a drug is of itself bad, which I find meaningless. But it is much closer to my own beliefs than that which other political philosophies are likely to advance.

The chapter on education is a lengthy one and Ward clearly believes, with some justification, that it is in this area that anarchist thought has been at its most original and subversive. This goes back to the beginnings of theoretical anarchism with the school prospectus issued by William Godwin in 1794. A few years later Godwin summed up his educational theory as follows…

The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness

Now this is a statement with which I can concur in terms of both its specific applications and in its widest philosophical ramifications. Indeed it was this kind of crystallisation of thoughts which  have been swirling round my head for some years which I was seeking in this book – but this, and Bakunin’s aphorism above are really the only two examples I have found. Because it seems to me that this is a foundation for an approach to life which can be both personal and political; an ethical and moral stance by which everything can be judged. It goes, it is hardly necessary to say, completely against the grain of nearly all Western thought (I do not know enough of Eastern thought, but am dubious as to whether it is really significantly different) both religious and secular. We exist to search for happiness; and happiness here, not in some mythical future life. Of course whether we can within the confines of the social and political order in which  we live ever find it is a different matter; but the quest itself can determine much of our direction in life. So for this one phrase and all its implications this book has been of great value to me.

Godwin’s theory of education was based around the rejection of any national system of education. He gave three reasons for his argument….

  1. ‘all public establishments include in them the idea of permanence……..public education has always expended its energies in the support of prejudice…This feature runs through every species of public establishment; and even in the petty institution of Sunday schools, the chief lessons to be taught are a superstitious veneration for the Church of England, and to bow to every man in a handsome coat..’. I think that what Godwin is arguing here is that ‘public institutions’  have as a central feature of their being a philosophy which is based on the fixity of things, and hence a defence of the existing social, political and cultural order. The very rigmaroles and traditions of schools are inherently conservative.
  2. the idea of national education rests upon the idea that children should be passive receptacles rather than active, independent: ‘It is our wisdom to incite men to act for themselves, not to retain them in state of perpetual pupilage‘.
  3. national education ‘ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government. This is an alliance of a much more formidable nature than the old and much contested alliance of church and state. Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambitious an agent, it behoves us to consider well what we do. Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hand and perpetuate its institutions…Their views as instigators of a system of education will not fail to be analogous to their views in their political capacity’.

I find these and successive anarchist arguments against national educations systems a good deal more convincing than the argument against the NHS, and they have grown in force in the UK over the past decade or more with the imposition of ever more ludicrous and restrictive ‘National Curricula’. Certainly it would be very hard to find any part of the current educational system which is either conducive to or aimed at happiness. Ward points out that recent historical research has discovered that 19th resistance to State schools was often due to the fact that well established working-class private schools, run on much less authoritarian lines, were already in existence. There have been a number of experiments in anarchist schooling principles, the most well-known in Britain being Summerhill.

Ward next tackles the issue of libertarianism. Until recently this was used as a synonym for anarchist and a famous anarchist jounal, founded in 1895, was called Le Libertaire. But the word has now been appropriated by a number of US free-market philosophers – Friedman, Nozick, Rothbard and Wolff.  There was a long tradition of anarchism in the US which had many strands including that supplied by Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)  whose book Walden subsequently influenced among others Tolstoy, Ghandi and Martin Luther King. However the right-wing anarchists of the 1970’s, who were academics rather than activists, preached the ‘rolling back of the frontiers of the state’ : Ward comments that they ignored…

the old proverb that freedom for the pike means death for the minnow. For the bleak facts about the United States economy are that 10% of its citizens possess 85% of the country’s net wealth

However Ward’s ultimate defence against this appropriation of anarchist ideals seems weak. One surely just has to go back to Bakunin’s formulation (‘freedom without socialism is privlege and injustice) to sort out this chaff? I think however that Ward wants to keep his distance from socialism at all costs.

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